The process of making an ambrotype doesn’t leave much room for error.
When Eric Overton sets out to photograph landscapes in the 21st century using the process, which was first developed in the 1850s and largely obsolete by the 1870s, he carries 150 pounds of equipment in two backpacks, as well as slung over his shoulder.
The equipment includes a camera, a tripod and the chemical solutions needed to develop the photographs in a mobile darkroom, occasionally a two-man tent. In a nod to the photographers that pioneered the technique, he uses High West whiskey bottles to store the chemical solutions.
It’s not an easy feat: There are days when he is unable to make a single image.
“Being in the natural environment makes it challenging, fun, frustrating — it makes you run the gamut of emotions and ask yourself why you’re doing in this way,” he said.
There are only about 10 minutes from the time in which the wet collodion plate is prepared until it’s processed.
Elemental challenges also arise. If Overton happens to leave his equipment in his truck overnight in Yosemite National Park, where temperatures dip below 30 degrees Farenheit, that could mess with the chemical balance and ruin his chances of getting photographs that day.
With these numerous obstacles, and the widespread availability of digital cameras, Overton is acutely aware that there are easier and more precise ways of capturing a landscape. But for him the old technique is a lot less about precision than it is about the process.
“Every time an image would develop in front of me in the darkroom and I could see the speed at which the image appears — that moment when the picture emerges it’s really just an incredible time,” Overton said. “It’s such a playful thing as well. I kind of lose myself when I’m out there photographing. I forget to eat or drink water. It’s just exciting.”
For Overton the involved landscape photography process is also an opportunity to share his work with his children. He’s frequently brings his 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter along with him. The two become as immersed in the process as their father.
Thirteen of Overton’s ambrotypes, each one about 8 by 10 inches, are set to make up his “Western Gothic” show at Altamira Fine Art, which is on display until Oct. 19. The photographer will drop by the gallery for a Saturday reception.
Overton’s foray into ambrotype photography arrives well into a career as an artist that is uniquely its own.
His early career reads like a scene out of “Almost Famous.” As a 20-year-old armed with photography aspirations and a 35-millimeter Canon camera given to him by his older brother (fellow Altamira artist Brad Overton), he snuck into a Sundance Film Festival party, took pictures of the band and sold them to Rolling Stone magazine.
“I always had a knack for cold calling people and skipping steps,” Overton said. “That’s kind of how I got involved in the magazine.”
Rolling Stone was soon sending the young Overton across the country to shoot bands like the Strokes, Britney Spears and Elvis Costello. At a White Stripes concert he met Jack Black and the cast of MTV’s “Jackass” and felt intimidated by the quick-fire banter.
Despite an auspicious start, Overton veered away from a career as a music photographer. He became more interested in fine art, moved to Málaga, Spain, and eventually came back to Salt Lake City, where he opened Ampersand Gallery, a studio where he lived and worked.
Still, he felt like he wanted an education, but felt like he lacked the patience for an art degree. He decided instead to go to medical school.
“Medicine was something that always intrigued me,” he said. “I would spend hours at the bookstore looking through anatomy books. When I finally bit the bullet and buckled down and did my premed work and med school, the interplay between art and science really galvanized an interest in figurative sculptural work.”
Overton made his first sculpture the week after his first big board exam, about halfway through his time at New York Medical College.
“I started sculpting torsos and feet and limbs and hands,” he said. “It was something I was always interested in, but I guess had to work up the courage to really get that first block of clay and dig into it.”
It was also in medical school that Overton first became interested in learning how to make the photographic prints he specializes in today. What he admires most about the method, and what keeps him going back to it, is how it makes the process of photography visible.
“What attracts me more than the images hearkening to another era is the artifact that speaks to the process and the toil involved with making these photographs,” he said. “Every image has a degree of artifact, or even error.”
He enjoys when his photographs aren’t executed flawlessly. He likes that the final result is darker, grittier than what is produced by a modern camera.
“When a corner of the image cracks and folds apart it creates a moodiness or a little bit of a darkness to these western images,” he said. “And that’s what, to me, is really more interesting.” ￼